Being a part of a large-scale, diverse campus requires innovative and creative approaches that make students feel seen and cared for. This falls to those working in Student Affairs, who are tasked with finding these solutions and giving students an excellent university experience.
For Rose Pascarell, Vice President for University Life at George Mason University, this has been integral to her Student Affairs journey. She sat down with Co-host of The Interview, Charles Sin, to speak about her proudest initiatives to date.
I am the Vice President for University Life at George Mason University and have been for nine years. Mason is the largest public institution in Virginia, with around 40,000 students.
Our acceptance rate is around 90%. We believe in the potential of all; our mission and values align with expanding access and achieving excellence which can be seen in our graduation outcomes. I'm at Mason because this institution is diverse in its representation, but also committed to what I believe the mission of a public institution in the Commonwealth should be.
I was trained as a sociologist, and my first position was helping to create a Women's Studies Research and Resource Center. I was hired as the Associate Director of the center, and my assumption was that I was going to help students write research papers. Instead, the students who came to this new center were focused on managing the traumas and stresses in their lives. So I was helping connect them to resources and support networks, and I realized that college can, if you take a holistic approach, transform a student's life. That is where my interest in Student Affairs began.
We've been doing the work of cultural competency in DEI for a long time. The work is embedded in many of the regular ways we work with students. There's orientation, convocation, and a set of activities called the preamble, which all new students and transfer students participate in before classes start. One of the things that we do is put all students through an introduction to Mason, called Self, Others, and Community.
We start by showing students the environment they will be in. We let them know that they will be interacting with many people from around the world who don't have the same backgrounds or cultural assumptions. We encourage them to be their full self in those interactions, and we need to feel comfortable connecting with people across differences. Those are the kinds of conversations that we're having, and it is based on a lot of practical applied learning.
As an example, we have a longstanding center for advancing well-being, and we have longstanding programs and units that focus on DEI work. For a long time, those two focus areas were separated, and we made the decision to combine DEI work with well-being work, particularly as we saw students suffering from traumatic events playing out nationally and internationally.
We created an integrated approach that combined well-being and inclusion. We have DEI clinicians in our counseling center who focus on issues such as race-based trauma. Mason is a majority-minority campus, so the work on DEI has become embedded in how we operate on a daily basis. At Mason, I believe there is a strong acceptance and appreciation of differences.
Most importantly, I don't do it on my own. There are about 450 staff members who are part of University Life and 1,000 student assistants. Everyone understands our vision — “every student succeeds,” and we work together to achieve it.
We are a large school, and we work to create the feeling that every student is connected — technology has helped enable that. We are focused on systems and processes that work with cohorts and groups of students. We also create structures that enable personal one-on-one interaction with staff members. We established a student success coaching model about three years ago with the goal of creating a mass-customized approach for individual students. So every incoming student was assigned a coach regardless of status, risk factor, or risk analysis. We've continued to do that throughout the pandemic and beyond.
Every success coach proactively reaches out through nudges, emails, requests, activities, and events. The goal is that every student can identify a staff member who can help them navigate the institution. The coaches also work closely with academic advisors so the support can continue in any way. Our goal was to create that sense of students feeling that, even though they are on a campus of 40,000, people still know who they are. The combining of direct support with advanced technology has helped make that happen.
We are highly committed to freedom of speech, but it does come with challenges. Most students understand the value of freedom of expression, but it becomes more difficult to accept this when someone else’s speech is threatening long-held beliefs and values. If speech is experienced as offensive, it's more difficult for students to support. But particularly at a public institution, we must create a space where all viewpoints can be heard.
When students feel that something doesn’t represent their views or the views that are being expressed are harmful, we focus on taking an equal approach of support of freedom of expression alongside care for our historically marginalized communities. It’s typically students from marginalized communities who tend to be targeted and thus feel the least support when issues of freedom of expression come up. Our goal is to have folks think about Mason as a school committed to freedom of expression but one that is equally committed to supporting students from historically underrepresented communities.
Stay engaged. Oftentimes DEI work is about becoming comfortable with discomfort. It is about realizing that there is, as Gail Christopher states, no hierarchy of human value. It is also about acknowledging past injustices and working towards a remedy. For all students, we know meaningful learning can occur when they know they can fully be themselves on a college campus, that who they are is important and significant, and that they can be transformative change-makers if they choose.